By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Atlantic Coast Conference rocked the college athletics landscape four years ago when it expanded from nine teams to 12, a bold move driven in large part by the league's desire to stage a conference championship football game.
From a financial standpoint, the game has been a success, generating more than $10 million each year, ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. The conference has a contract with ABC that runs through 2010 and a long-term deal that places the champion in the Orange Bowl, part of the lucrative Bowl Championship Series.
But success away from the stadium has been dampened by events inside of it. When No. 6 Virginia Tech and No. 12 Boston College -- two of the former Big East schools whose defections made expansion possible -- kick off Saturday, they will do so before roughly 20,000 empty seats.
"This is a game that's evolving and developing," Swofford said. "Games have to develop their own history and tradition. I think as we go along, the importance of the game and what it means will come. Our satisfaction will come when every game, regardless of the matchup, is played to a full house."
For the second straight season, the game will give off an embarrassing appearance on television -- swaths of empty teal seats at Jacksonville (Fla.) Municipal Stadium. For Saturday's game, 55,000 tickets are expected to be sold in a 77,497-capacity stadium, Gator Bowl Association President Rick Catlett said. Virginia Tech has played only two games in front of fewer than 55,000 fans this season -- at Duke and at Georgia Tech.
"I think we were hoping to get 65,000," Catlett said. "It doesn't look like it's going to turn out to be that much. But we'll put on one great show, I know that."
Fan interest has seemingly decreased since 2005, when novelty and the inclusion of Florida State led to a sellout crowd. The broadcast of that game earned a 5.1 Nielsen rating, better than those of the Big 12 or Southeastern Conference championship games that year. Florida State drew fans locally, and Virginia Tech's rabid fan base ate up tickets, while both programs brought ample cachet for national viewers.
Last season, rotten luck doomed Jacksonville. Traditional also-rans Georgia Tech and Wake Forest played more than a five-hour drive away from each school. ABC moved the game from prime time to 1 p.m. Just 62,850 tickets were sold, but thousands fewer fans actually showed up on account of dreary, rainy weather on Dec. 2. (Catlett said his group's research showed not a single drop of precipitation had fallen on Dec. 2 the previous 10 years.) Neither team scored a touchdown; Wake Forest won, 9-6; and the game earned a 4.0 TV rating.
The Southeastern Conference championship game has sold out 13 of 15 seasons and filled stadiums, on average, to 102.3 percent of their capacity. Last year, the title game earned a 4.5 rating despite airing opposite UCLA's upset of No. 2 Southern California.
In the Big 12, Nebraska and Oklahoma filled Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., with more than 80,000 fans last season and drew a 4.23 rating. In 2005, the Big 12 earned a 4.16 rating despite Texas blowing out Colorado, 70-3.
The ACC's attendance issues, ironically, may also stem from the geographic growth that made the championship game possible. When the ACC added Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami, it changed from a regional cluster of teams to an amalgamation that spread the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Problems abound, as evidenced by this season. There are few direct flights from Boston to Jacksonville, and it's an 18-hour drive. Virginia Tech still has 2,000 tickets remaining of its 10,000-ticket allotment, Athletic Director Jim Weaver said.
"In the early years, the matchup itself certainly has something to do with what the attendance is," Swofford said. "But you can't predict that. One thing I've learned over the years in this business, most things competitively are going to be cyclical. You can't prejudge who's going to be in the game."
When the conference implemented its expansion plans, Miami and Florida State were expected to dominate the league, so a championship game in Florida made sense. The conference placed the Hurricanes and Seminoles in different divisions, ensuring a possible -- or likely, as most thought -- ratings bonanza in the championship game.
But both programs have stunningly crumbled, detracting from the ACC's football reputation in the process. Miami did not qualify for a bowl this season, and Florida State has lost at least five games each season since the championship debuted.
All this has led the conference to explore moving the game. Before this season, the ACC extended its contract with Jacksonville for one season when it could have added two.
Tomorrow, conference officials and school athletic directors will discuss Charlotte -- a US Airways hub and within 300 miles of eight ACC schools -- and Tampa as possible replacements. Swofford expects a decision within two weeks.
"It seems to me that if we were playing the game in a location that was more centralized, that fans from the different institutions would come as a walk-up crowd," Weaver said. "I guess that shows that there would be some interest in the Charlotte situation."